February 12, 2009

The Israeli Left: the illusion of an illusion

The preliminary results of the elections in Israel are in. A few surprises in a generally familiar landscape.

Israel Beiteinu, the ultra racist Russian party, won an important victory. It is now the third largest party in Israel, after Kadima and Likud. The victory is however not as large as the original polls suggested.

The routing of the "Left" was impressive. Meretz, augmented with the new celebrity list (Amos Oz, Avraham Burg, etc.) got trounced to 3 seats, barely qualifying. Labor was not helped by the massacres in Gaza. It also fell to its nadir so far, 13 seats.

Kadima rose steadily in the polls and ended as the largest party in Israel, one seat ahead of Likud. The rise of Kadima was mostly at the expense of the "left." It come out way ahead in the "left" strongholds, polling 34% in Tel Aviv, and reaching parity with Labor in the kibutzim.

As usual in such cases, there are contingent explanation. Voters voted for Livni because of her personality and as a way to block Netanyahu. That was Livni's campaign's line in the last days, urging people to vote Kadima to defend the country from Bibi and Lieberman.

The more structural argument is that Kadima is fast becoming the party that best expresses the interests and politics of secular Israelis. Kadima is unabashedly neo-liberal. It officially supports legalized apartheid (a.k.a. the two states solution), mostly because it is sensitive to the importance of Western support and has leaders that can "sell" Israel to the West. But Kadima has no inhibitions about mass murder and will not give Palestinians one cent, not to mention one inch, more than international pressure will demand.

Labor and especially Meretz are addressing a secular Israeli sector that is ever more an illusion. They appeal to people who want apartheid but are embarrassed by it and therefore enjoy waxing poetic about "peace". They appeal to voters who believe caring about "human rights" is the right thing to do, and yet are vaguely aware, and aware of the importance of not being aware, that too much "human rights" can harm their material interests as the prime beneficiaries of the current order. And finally, they appeal to people who enjoy economic success but feel uneasy about it, people for whom poverty still seems like a failure of society. Meretz and to a lesser extent Labor are parties for white Israelis with a guilty conscience, on the lookout for disadvantage groups that can reflect back to them their sense of goodness, Palestinians who would say thank you for their "peace advocacy" and poor Jews who would appreciate their enlightened social concerns. Their actual policies are muddled and patronizing. Having helped dismantling the welfare state, they now inveigh about the money that goes to the settlements "instead of" welfare. They demand more "social" expenditures, but lined up behind the neo-liberal mayor of Tel-Aviv when he was challenged, and almost defeated, by a joint Palestinian-Jewish list under Hadash. They are against war in principle, but always ready to defend the necessity of every war that Israel launches. They believe in principle in Palestinian rights (as long as Palestinians don't ask too much), but would have nothing to do with Palestinians struggling for their rights. These are the parties for Israelis who are "shooting and crying."

But most secular Israelis are no longer shooting and crying. They are making money and laughing. They are not shooting, because others are increasingly shooting for them. And they are not crying either. A full generation of living under neo-liberalism made the life of the not-rich-and-not-famous disappear from their laptop screens, and a generation of separation and vicious but effective propaganda made Gaza almost as real to them as little green men from Mars. The fact that Kadima is lead by a woman is for many social progress enough. She smashed Gaza and the Glass Ceiling in one single stroke.

And that is why they voted Kadima. It might seem surreal to outsiders, but Israeli media is beginning to describe Kadima as the Israeli "Left." Within the confines of Israel's corrupt language, this is sort of accurate. Kadima, led by mostly former Likud members, is now the political home of most secular Israelis.

The other outcome of the elections is that the success of Lieberman is stressing the Right. The Right is only united by hatred towards Palestinian and resentment often bordering on hatred towards secular Israelis. Internally, it is made of three or four parts, Mizrahis and religious settlers, Russians and Ultra Orthodox. This kind of unity depends on a sense of embattlement. Victory stresses it. The Russians, being secular, are at odd with the other groups about the political role of religion. That makes them potentially co-optable by Kadima. Even if, as is most likely, Lieberman stays with Likud, it might have a rocky relationship with the religious parties.

In the Palestinian sector, a few surprises as well. Contrary to expectations, the participation level dropped by only 2-3%. The number of Palestinians voting for Zionist parties dropped however from 28% to 18%, leading to a 10% (1 seat) increase in the non-Zionist representation in the Knesset.

Bibi is most likely to be Israel's next Prime Minister. The question is whether Kadima is part of the coalition. Despite the obvious difficulties, I bet on it. Kadima is ultra light on the vision thing. Its politicians are not fit for life outside of the corridors of power. Labor and Meretz are almost certainly going to stay in opposition. That is too bad. They ought to disestablish themselves. They used to represent the illusion of peace and the illusion of socialism. Now they represent the illusion that these illusions still have buyers.

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